The show is in a popular bar in the Lower East Side that I don’t yet know is a mainstay. Attractive people in trench coats and logoless baseball caps press past us as we try to steady the beer in our plastic cups. We scan the room for any signs of a stage, too intimidated to ask a stranger here. It’s my third week in New York, his eighth.
We’ve come to see a band whose music I listened to often the summer before we moved away from Minnesota. Their sound, a South African riff on London New Wave, first reached me via college radio and now threads itself through my last memories of Saint Paul.
The crowd stirs. Concertgoers let their jackets hang loose off their bony shoulders as they funnel through a doorway in the bar’s back corner. We follow them towards the music. Somewhere up ahead a deep voice wails into a microphone.
Suddenly, I see the outline of a woman’s body. The foamy purple of the stage lights plays along her edges. She has wide hips and a full chest. Everything she wears is tight and black and stretchy; she could be on her way to yoga.
My date, my boyfriend, recognizes her. He thinks she won a Grammy, he says into my ear. He didn’t know she’d be opening.
In awe, I watch her. Maybe five years older than me, she’s hunched over a keyboard. Her body rolls over itself naturally as she jerks her shoulders to the beat. Her brown hair falls long and tangled over her face.
For a flash of a moment I believe that her body, her face, both resemble my own. I desperately see myself in her. I wonder why I’ve never felt this way, as women with blue eyes and pale skin like my own have been long ordained the picture of beauty, slapped on magazine covers around the world.
Blinking twice, I wince when I realize I’ve equated myself with an artist who holds the attention and, likely, desire of much of the audience. I refocus on the music: ambient, low and slow.
But still—my eyes wander to the flesh below her arms, soft in the purple light; her face red and rounded with full cheeks. Strong legs and a tiny pocket of skin tucked under her chin. She wears little makeup, less of a bra. Her hair, roots heavy, sweat trickling from her temple. I am always greasy, sweaty (you’ll be the slug of New York, my cleverest friend told me as she hugged me goodbye). The woman and I are exactly the same.
At the end of her song, she introduces herself to the audience as Anna. She speaks with an energetic sweetness that strikes me as unique to this city.
Anna talks about Trump and violence against women she has known, herself included. She talks about feminism and its countless intersections, where her crossroads meet and where they don’t. Peering through her mess of hair into the building crowd, she asks all the women in the audience to come to the front of the stage if they feel comfortable.
The next song is for us, she says.
All sorts of women weave around me towards the front — some of them slow, hesitant; others bold and at home, smacking their chewing gum and rousing their friends to join. Most of the men in the room step back a bit, if only out of discomfort. One of them, white in a black hoodie with a red anarchy "A," stands his ground.
Suddenly timid with a guy I’ve been with for years, like a mouse I ask my date permission to join the small crowd up front. I feel hot and dizzy, biting back unannounced tears. I long for my loudest friend to appear by my side and pull me ahead. I conjure her face, her hand-holding, and I follow the stream of ponytails, braids, big curls and shaved heads to the front of the room.
I am cocooned in a small mob of fur coats and fishnets, Chanel and B.O. The woman on stage begins to serenade us with a pop song about getting catcalled. I’ve never heard it before but I learn the words quickly. I want to bob my head with the other women, throw our arms around each other, scream “fuck you!” at the guys and become lifelong friends. Instead I tap my foot and chew my lip.
On stage, Anna slings her hips about haphazardly, closing her eyes as she sings with a voice dark, round, and commanding. Awkward and sexy, white but not thin. At the song’s end, she smiles over us like a teacher. I feel as fragile as a kindergartener. We disassemble messily. Like many women in the crowd, I shuffle back to a man.
In her final set, Anna thanks us and hypes up the main act, reminding me why I’m here. During the bridge, she yells into the crowd off-mic:
“I want us all to dance!”
She flings her hands straight over her head and flops off the stage as if she’s jumping into cold water. She hops up and down like a wild child, bouncing in all directions. Gleaming with sweat, she whirls through the crowd, now full of people unsure of how to handle her — this bouncy woman with her big laugh and earnest eyes like my best friend from Tennessee.
When her set ends, I approach Anna with a shaky smile that she returns.
Stammering, I begin to thank her for her performance. Within a few moments I am inhaling too quickly; I collapse in tears into her arms. Squishy arms like my arms, like my best friend’s and my mom’s faraway arms. She rubs my back.
We trade secrets and, naturally, Instagram handles. Say goodbye.
When the main act begins playing, I feel Anna’s hug warm on my shoulders. The band saves my favorite song for the end, and the lead vocalist asks someone to shut off all the lights.
They play in blackness. The walls of the small venue vibrate as the song’s tempo quickens, horns and falsetto mourning a complicated romance. I close my eyes and hum along with a new tenderness to this song that sends me back to humid August evenings in Minneapolis.
I imagine biking down the wide boulevards of Saint Paul behind my red-headed friend, her bike cutting the air more quickly than her laughter as we blast towards the Mississippi. I remember a poorly-planned house dinner. A bitter stand-off during a game of Fuck Marry Kill. Gossiping over trash television, and a friendship that sprouted from books in a tiny classroom and bled into the bar. Fighting. Posing naked in front of our college sign after a night of pink drinks and sweaty dancing, stomping on the toes of boys in pastel Oxford shirts who grabbed and groped. Holding and being held. Tears mixing with sweat: because of a lost friend, an ex-lover, a family’s secret, a bike crash, a sore throat. Clutching at each other as we screeched our favorite songs off-tune in our final days together, so faraway-romantic now like an ex-quarterback’s former glory.
Packing up a car with a boy that I’d spend most of my time with. Next year: this year.
Still shaky, my face is raw from public breakdown. I feel the drums in my stomach and lean out towards something in the darkness, wondering if I’ll ever feel that sort of love again.